If cities are to close the digital divide and end so-called "digital redlining," they must partner with the private sector to help locally, but they also will need sustained federal help, speakers said at a virtual event Wednesday.

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the yawning digital divide in the United States and led many elected officials to try to mitigate it in the short-term through distributing devices and hot spots while partnering with telecommunication companies to improve service. San Jose, California installed small cells on city-owned streetlights and worked with the private sector to streamline the permitting process so they could "move at the speed of business," said its deputy manager Dolan Beckel.

Baltimore, which has a well-documented digital divide, took quick action last year with legislation that allowed it to use $3 million from its children and youth fund to expand internet access. Councilmember Zeke Cohen said those efforts included buying Chromebooks for low-income students, as the city "really scrambled" to keep education as uninterrupted as possible. Indeed, Cohen said broadband must be treated as a public utility given its importance to everyday life.

While the American Rescue Plan, expected infrastructure legislation and renewed emphasis on broadband rollout from the Economic Development Administration mean more short-term spending in high-speed internet, speakers said long-term funding is needed, too, to ensure the digital divide is truly closed. Beckel called for a "multiyear plan," with coordination between the states and the federal government, and a holistic approach that is flexible depending on communities’ needs.

Read the full article about closing the digital divide by Chris Teale at Smart Cities Dive.